Is Ukraine's violence overshadowing Putin's Olympics?

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Carol Hills: Just five days left of the Olympic competition in Sochi. While the excitement and the medal count continues, the crackdown on protestors next door in Ukraine may be overshadowing these final days. Simon Shuster has been reporting on the Games for Time magazine. We spoke to him from the Sochi Press Headquarters. He says the violence in Ukraine is a main topic of conversation among journalists and it's on the minds of Ukraine's athletes as well. Simon Shuster: The Ukrainian athletes made an official request to the International Olympic Committee to wear black armbands in solidarity and as a sign of mourning really for the twenty-five people who died in the last twenty-four hours in the violence in Kiev. And the IOC refused to allow that. They took it as a political gesture, which is banned under the Olympic charter. But the Ukrainian athletes protested it was just a sign of mourning, so that disagreement certainly caused some controversy today and the Ukrainian athletes were saying that people were coming up expressing concern, expressing worry, expressing solidarity, again, with the protestors and really with the Ukrainian people and the uncertainty that they face right now. So definitely it's something that has cast a shadow over the games. Hills: What about among you and the press corps? Are people kind of preoccupied and looking for different sources of information, not just what's in front of them at Sochi? Shuster: One of the amazing things, and I think the unique thing, about this revolution in Ukraine is that there are multiple live feeds of the square where it's all unfolding. This revolution is not only televised, it’s on a live feed often with English translations. So while a very exciting hockey match, an Olympic hockey match, was going on in Sochi, a lot of the press center were glued to their computers watching the live feed of the revolution in Kiev. And a lot of people are taking off for Ukraine. Now, I'm going later tonight, at about 5:00 in the morning Sochi time, so I'm going to be there the next day and that means I'm going to have to miss the closing ceremony which is a shame, but that's what the news calls for. Hills: The Sochi Games of course were a huge coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin. I'm wondering how this whole drama going on in Ukraine which is diverting attention, is that overshadowing his Olympic success? Shuster: In a lot of ways it is. A lot of the debate right now in Ukraine and in Russia as well is around this mysterious conversation that Putin had with the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last night. Just as the violence was getting underway, just as the riot troops were storming the square in Kiev, Putin and Yanukovych were on the phone. We don’t know what they spoke about, but Putin’s spokesman confirmed today that that phone call took place. And it really led to a lot of speculation certainly in Ukraine, but also in Russia that the Kremlin has some hand in the decision to disperse the square violently. Now, again, we don't what was said, but Russia has certainly put economic and diplomatic pressure on the Ukrainian government to resolve this crisis by force if necessary. Hills: Now, in Sochi itself there has been a few protests of late as these Olympics wind down. Just yesterday, a few members of Pussy Riot were detained, they were then released. Another environmental activist was arrested as well. Why are there protests suddenly bubbling up now with only a few days left for the Olympics? Shuster: That's a good question. I don't know the timing. I think that a lot of activists and a lot of human rights workers were expecting Russia to take a much softer line at least during the Olympics at least in Sochi and around Sochi, but that really hasn't happened. I mean if the world was expecting a soft and friendly Putin during the games, they certainly have not gotten it. An environmental activist who was protesting Olympic constructions in Sochi and around Sochi was sentenced during the games last week to three years in prison. The most prominent political activist in Russia, Alexei Navalny, he has been forbidden from even visiting Sochi. And when the two young women from Pussy Riot visited yesterday, they were detained for several hours leading to a pretty major international scandal. They were released, which I guess a good sign, they weren't sentenced again to two years in prison, but we're not seeing the softer line on human rights that I think many people were expecting during the Olympics. Hills: Now, I want to switch gears here just a bit. You tweeted a photo this week of a Russian Olympic tradition. Can you describe that tradition? Shuster: Oh it's a wonderful thing. So every Sunday at the Russian House, sort of a clubhouse for athletes and organizers here in Sochi, the Olympians who have won medals, they get together and a large tub of champagne is poured out, maybe about a gallon, and all of them and all of them are asked to dunk their medals into the champagne and then pass it around like a communal chalice and drink from it. And it was a really fun tradition to watch. The medals got all sticky, but the athletes didn't seem to mind so much, and it showed that the athletes really have a lot to celebrate. This is their show and they're doing really well, they're doing way better than they did at the last Winter Games in Vancouver which were the worst Olympic showing ever for Russia or the Soviet Union for that matter. So there's a lot of celebrations certainly among the athletes. It's a shame that a lot of the political crises, the crackdowns on human rights, the revolution in Ukraine, have overshadowed the celebrations of the athletes. That's really what the games are about and I think that tradition sort of summarized it for me. It was really great to see that. Hills: But sadly the Russian hockey team will not be among those dipping their medals in the champagne. Big loss for Russia today. What were the reactions there? Shuster: It was really unpleasant to see that. I have to admit, during Saturday's Russia-US game I was in the stadium and I got to talk to a lot of fans and by the end of the game I was rooting for Russia myself. I saw how much it would have meant to the fans and to Russian people to have that win on their home turf. So it was sad to see that we will not get a rematch. There was still a possibility after Saturday's game of a rematch for the gold between US and Russia, but that's not going to happen. Hills: Simon Shuster, he's been reporting on the Sochi Olympic Games for Time magazine. Thanks, Simon. Shuster: Thank you.